Alexandre Dumas was born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie on July 24 1802, in Villers-Cotterêts, France, to Marie Louise Labouret and General Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie. The Dumas family name was adopted from Alexandre’s grandmother, an enslaved Haitian woman named Marie-Césette Dumas. His father was the Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de La Pailleterie. Thomas-Alexandre took the name Dumas when he enlisted in Napoleon’s army, where he acquired the dubious nickname “Black Devil.”
Thomas-Alexandre rose to the rank of general at the age of 31, the highest rank of any black man in a European army. In 1797, he distinguished himself at the battle of Adige when he surprised and defeated an Austrian battery. Thomas-Alexandre left the armed forces following a disagreement with Napoleon over his Egypt campaign. He was imprisoned for nearly two years and died shortly after his release.. After her husband’s death, Marie Louise Labouret worked hard to provide an education for her son. Dumas attended Abbé Grégoire’s school before dropping out to take a job assisting a local notary.
In 1822, Dumas moved to Paris and immersed himself in literature. He worked as a scribe for the duc d’Orléans (later named King Louis Philippe) during the 1830 revolution. He began writing plays, both comedies and dramas. Dumas’s Romantic style, often compared to that of his contemporary and rival, Victor Hugo, proved to be exceptionally popular.
Dumas was a prolific writer of essays, short stories and novels, as well as plays and travelogues. He achieved widespread success with the novels ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’, initially published as serials. These novels made Dumas a household name in France and a popular author throughout much of Europe.
With the money he earned from publishing his novels, Dumas purchased land and built the Château de Monte Cristo in Port Marly, Yvelines, France. This home (which is now a museum) was intended to be a sanctuary for the author, and he spent much of his time writing and entertaining there before debt overtook him, forcing him to sell the property. He fled to Belgium in 1851, and later to Russia, to evade creditors. Dumas continued to publish books, including travel books on Russia, during his period of exile.
Dumas had a son, also named Alexandre, with Marie Laure Catherine Labay. His son followed in his literary footsteps. In 1840, Dumas married actress Ida Ferrier, but continued his affairs with other women. He had at least one daughter, Marie Alexandrine, out of wedlock, and dated much younger women in his old age.
Dumas died on December 5 1870, at his son’s home in Puys, France. He was buried in the cemetery of Villers-Cotterêts. In 2002, his body was moved to the Panthéon in Paris, where Dumas rests among such other French literary greats as Émile Zola, Victor Hugo and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The English playwright Watts Phillips, who knew Dumas in his later life, described him as, “the most generous, large-hearted being in the world. He also was the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself.”